pharisees

John 9

Today, read John 9.

Peer pressure--the desire for social acceptance--is a powerful driver of human behavior. Sometimes this is a good thing; when something that is evil is also unacceptable socially, the fear of being exposed and shunned will help people to resist temptation and make good moral choices. But peer pressure is often a bad influence in people’s lives. It suffocates righteousness by embarrassing someone for doing the right thing.

This is what we saw in John 9. Jesus healed a man born blind (vv. 1-17). Because the Pharisees had their own moral and political reasons for rejecting Jesus, they pressured the man and his parents not to glorify God for this miraculous work but to be quiet about what Jesus did. His parents submitted in fear (vv. 20-23) but the man himself did not. Ironically, the Pharisees told him, “Give glory to God by telling the truth.” But then they told him the “truth” they wanted to hear: “We know this man is a sinner.” This is what pressure groups do. They create their own version of “truth,” spinning out lies that empower them and using the natural human desire to fit in against everyone.

We see this happening in our society as well; more and more, powerful pressure groups seek to silence our witness for Christ and get us to back down from what we know is right. They will be successful with many people, too, because it is hard to resist the flow of social pressure. But those who trust the Lord instead of conforming to the expected in this world have Jesus with them (vv. 35-38). There is a cost to following him, but the freedom and benefits of knowing him are far more valuable.

Mark 8

Today we’re reading Mark 8.

Do you remember the Judiazers from passages we’ve already read in Acts, Galatians, and Colossians? They were a group of people who called themselves Christians but tried to impose Old Testament ceremonies on the Gentile believers who came to Christ and became part of the church in the cities where Paul traveled. Here in Mark 8:15, Jesus forewarned the disciples about them when he said, “‘Be careful,’ Jesus warned them. ‘Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees....’”

It seems surprising that Jesus would need to warn the disciples about the Pharisees. They were a constant problem for Christ during his ministry on this earth, so I would expect that the Twelve would be wary about them. Maybe they were; however, we need to remember that the disciples grew up in synagogues that were dominated by Pharisaic leadership and interpretation of the Law. While they may have distrusted the Pharisees based on their experiences with Jesus, they were probably sympathetic to the outlook on life and spirituality that the Pharisees had.

Jesus warned the disciples that the teaching of the Pharisees (and Herod, but that’s a different story) would be like yeast. I don’t know anything about baking but I am told (like, here) that a small lump of yeast will grow and spread throughout an entire batch of dough. A little Pharisaism, then, in the church would grow and permeate the whole congregation. So Christ warned the disciples not to let them and their rules into the church.

There are some groups of Christians who would like to bring the church back under observance of the law. Our church, however, is more likely to be infected with Pharisaic attitudes than classic Pharisaic theology. We might never tell a newly converted man that he needs to get circumcised and stop eating ham. But we might be tempted to try to impress others with our pious words in prayer or with our extravagant giving to the church. We might never try to revert to observing the Sabbath, but we might judge someone for not wearing the right Christian uniform.

Do Christians need manmade rules to keep us from sinning? Maybe and we shouldn’t judge another believer who has different convictions about this or that than we do. But we also shouldn’t judge other Christians if they are living obediently to God’s word but apply it specifically in different ways than we do. That is a Pharisaic attitude and once it infects our hearts and our church, it will grow and spread until it permeates the whole congregation. fThis is true of all false doctrine, actually. How much error is good for your Christian life? How much false teaching can a church tolerate and still be healthy? According to Christ, not much because it spreads so we need to know our theology well and never dabble in or tolerate bad theology in our lives our our church family.

Mark 7

Today’s reading is Mark 7.

The Pharisees and teachers of the law were careful to observe the ceremonial washings that other men had created (vv. 1-4) and they were offended when Jesus and his disciples did not follow that tradition (v. 5). Jesus used their complaint to charge them with hypocrisy for holding religiously to man-made traditions while looking for religious reasons to avoid doing God’s will (vv. 6-13). Christ used the specific example of “Corban” to illustrate this sinful choice. One of the Big 10 commandments was to “honor your father and mother” (v. 10). We talk about this command to children and of course it applies to them. But the command was originally given to adults which suggests that there were responsibilities that adults had to their parents. If a man is going to honor his parents, that may mean giving them financial assistance as they get older. In a society without a concept such as “retirement” and no financial way to prepare for getting older, an elderly person would have to work until he/she died or live on the support of their children. Jesus applied the commandment to honor your parents to this kind of financial support. To Christ, if you want to honor your parents, you’d better share your home, your food, and/or your income when they have needs. This is a very logical application of the commandment to honor your parents.

The most religious people in Jesus’ society found a way to use their religious rules to render themselves unable of helping their parents. They would take a portion of their income or some of their assets and vow an oath to give that to God (someday). If it were devoted to God, then it would be morally wrong for them to give it to someone else, even their own elderly parents. They applied God’s word, then, in ways that helped them avoid the difficult applications of other portions of God’s word. In the words of Jesus, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!” (v. 9).

Do we do that? Do we ever apply scripture in ways that let us off the hook for obeying other passages of scripture? If we use the truth of God’s electing grace as an excuse not to share the gospel, then we are doing something like the Pharisees did. What about if we buy a large house for the good of our family but can’t tithe and pay the mortgage at the same time? What about if we volunteer to serve in one ministry in order to avoid getting into a small group or coming to the worship service?

These are just a few things that come to my mind at the moment. The human heart being what it is, I’m sure there are other ways we do something like what the Pharisees did here. If something comes to mind for you, consider what Jesus said about this practice of the Pharisees: “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ’“These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.”’” Don’t apply one command so favorably that it helps you avoid obeying another command. That reveals a heart that is distant from God, not one that wants to honor and obey him.

Mark 3

Today we’re reading Mark 3.

In Mark 2, which we read yesterday, Jesus told the Pharisees that he did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. Jesus’ statement could be read to imply that he believed the Pharisees were righteous. Although nobody seems to have reached that conclusion, here at the beginning of Mark 3, Jesus made it clear that he did not find the Pharisees to be righteous men. The setting was Saturday (aka “the Sabbath”) at the synagogue (v. 1). A man with a useless hand was there and the Pharisees were watching (v. 2). Makes you wonder if they saved a seat for that man near Jesus just to set him up, doesn’t it?

Verse 2 told us that they were “looking for a reason to accuse Jesus.” This statement reveals that they had already rejected Jesus and his message and were now seeking to discredit him publicly. Healing on the Sabbath would give them the weapon they needed against Christ. In the days of Moses, God commanded his people to stone a man for gathering sticks on the Sabbath day (Num 15:32-41). That’s a pretty strict definition of “work.” It suggests that “work” meant more than just how you make a living; it meant any kind of productive physical activity. To prevent anyone from exerting themselves, then, the rabbis defined how much physical activity a person could have. They even went so far as to restrict how many steps you could walk on the Sabbath day.

If someone were wounded on the Sabbath and needed to stop the bleeding, or put their shoulder back into the socket, it would be done without any thought that the Sabbath law had been violated. But this man had been without the use of his hand for a while, so his situation hardly qualified as an emergency. Regardless, Jesus felt that relieving his suffering would be a positive way to celebrate the Sabbath, not a violation of the commandment (v. 4). So, Christ healed the man, though it is noteworthy that the man did all the “work” by extending his hand. Jesus used divine, miraculous power to restore him, not any kind of human physical activity. But the Pharisees were incensed by Jesus’ healing, so much so that they began “to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus” (v. 6). Their response showed that they not truly zealous for God and his holiness. Their “obedience” to God’s law was about making themselves look righteous for their scrupulous observance. It was also about controlling others, getting everyone in the community to conform to their application of scripture.

Imagine how much better this man’s life instantly was the moment that Jesus healed him. If there was any pain in his shriveled hand, that pain was instantly relieved. If he wasn’t in pain, he certainly had to work harder than everyone else to do basic life tasks. How much longer did it take him to dress himself? How much harder was it to earn a living with one hand that was useless? What would it mean to him to be able to pick up his child for the first time since that kid was a baby? Jesus could have waited until Sunday to fix his hand but why should he? The Sabbath command was given to make people rest so that they didn’t work themselves to death out of envy or fear of starvation. Wouldn’t it be less work to have two good hands on the Sabbath day than just the one? God also commanded observance of the Sabbath to give humanity space in their lives to worship him. Do you think this man ever worshipped God more fervently than he did on the Sabbath when he was healed? By healing the man on the Sabbath, then, Jesus broke the manmade rules created by the rabbis. At the same time, he allowed the man to fulfill the intentions God had for the Sabbath law in the first place. The miracle Jesus performed in this passage accomplished many good things. It showed his deep compassion, displayed his unlimited power as God, and asserted his Lordship over the Sabbath. But it also confronted the ways in which the self-righteous Pharisees used their application of God’s laws to control others.

My church background growing up was very good. I learned God’s word, was reached by God’s good news, and discipled in the faith pretty well. But there were some pretty strong legalistic streaks in all that goodness, too. Under the guise of modesty, what we wore was strictly defined. That was especially true for the girls. There were also clear criteria for what kind of music was “worshipful” and what kind was worldly. There were colleges that were approved of, some that were tolerated, and the rest were off-limits. I could go on. Sometimes these rules were given as genuine applications of scripture. The problem was that these “applications” were then treated as if they were the commandments and principles of scripture. Too often it felt like the leaders wanted to control us more than they wanted us to draw close to God. The Pharisees were not concerned with the worship of the shriveled-hand man; they wanted to use him to neutralize Jesus and control God’s people. I’ve met Christians who do much of the same thing. They forbid anything they don’t like by labeling it as a violation of some command or other from God’s word. When people are controlled in this way, always worried about whether others will approve of their outfit or their actions or whatever, they have little mental or spiritual space left to focus on worshipping and pleasing God.

Applying God’s word is a good thing and clarifying how to apply it can be helpful. But don’t ever act as if your application of scripture is scripture itself. Instead, remember the goal is to live a life that glorifies God. If the Pharisees had been focused on that, they could have rejoiced with the man as his body was made whole again. Don’t make the same mistake.

Matthew 23

Happy February 1 and congratulations on completing 1/12th of this reading plant. Today let’s read Matthew 23.

Today’s reading continued to chronicle the life of Christ during the week of the crucifixion. Yesterday the religious leaders took turns trying to discredit Jesus by stumping him with hard questions. Jesus turned every question back on the questioners and made them look foolish. So, Jesus was on defense and refused to allow his opponents to score any points at all. Here in Matthew 23, Jesus went on offense, warning his audience about the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and teachers of the law and urging his audience not to live like these religious leaders.

Jesus was very specific in his complaints about the hypocrisy of these groups. He criticized them for:

  • not practicing what they preach (vv. 1-4).
  • doing everything for show, not from sincerity (vv. 5-12).
  • being an obstacle to God’s kingdom rather than a guide to it (vv. 13-15).
  • finding loopholes in God’s laws to exploit for their own selfish ends (vv. 16-22).
  • being scrupulous about obedience to the technicalities of the law while completely ignoring the moral and ethical commands of the law (vv. 23-24).
  • appearing squeaky-clean on the outside while being morally degenerate on the inside (vv. 25-28).
  • honoring the prophets that their ancestors killed while persecuting the prophets and teachers Jesus sent and was sending to them (vv. 29-36).

Jesus concluded with a lament that the nation he longed to redeem would be fall under his judgment instead because they rejected him in unbelief. This passage is unique among the recorded sayings of Jesus because of how unrelentingly harsh it is and how specific and lengthy it is. Although Jesus acknowledged that these religious leaders had some civil authority that required his disciples to obey them (vv. 2-3), he made it very clear that they were not his servants or subjects of his kingdom.

The portion of this chapter that stands out most to me is contained within verses 5-12. Although the religious men of his culture loved the accolades of great honor that were customarily given to them (v. 7), Jesus commanded his followers not to give titles and honor to our leaders (vv. 8-11). He could not have been clearer that Christian leaders are to be servants who serve in humility (vv. 11-12); consequently, he strictly forbid us from putting titles on each other.

Despite what Jesus clearly said, Christian leaders for centuries have demanded certain titles: Bishop Youknowwho, Pope Grande, Cardinal Soandso, Saint Bernard, and even “Father”-- the very title Jesus said not to use (v. 9). Though the elders here at Calvary felt it was important for me to be called “Pastor,” I’ve always been more comfortable just going by the name my parents gave me. Even though I have an earned doctorate, I never tell anyone to call me Dr. Jones and this passage is the reason why. We call Paul “the Apostle Paul” but he never called himself that.

I do think we should be careful about using titles in light of this passage, but the command here is less about whether you call me “Pastor Brian” or just “Brian” and more about whether I serve the Lord in order to get honor and respect from you. The Pharisees and teachers of the law wanted the social status that came from being a religious leader. They did not view themselves as servants to their disciples but as princes who taught but also demanded much from their followers. We are not immune to this temptation. Some people seek to be elders or deacons or teachers in the church because they want the respect of the people of the church. Jesus called us to remember that spiritual leadership is about service, not about self. May God help all of us to cultivate the servants heart that Jesus commanded and modeled for us, no matter what title people apply to our names or what positions of authority we occupy.